Concerns about the Chagos Archipelago MPA Proposal

WDCS has some concerns about the procedure being used to propose a large Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago, British Indian Ocean Territory. On paper it looks wonderful, but there are some problems that need to be addressed before it can become a successful, highly protected area that will contribute to global biodiversity and MPA targets. We hope the Overseas Territories Directorate is listening. Here is our letter to them:

Overseas Territories Directorate
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH

10 February 2010

RE: The creation of a large Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago, British Indian Ocean Territory

Dear Sir or Madam,

Noting that the UK Government has invited comments from ‘anyone with an interest in the protection of the environment,’ we at the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS), based in the UK, US, Germany, Argentina and Australia, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) with several offices in the US and in China, would like to register our concerns regarding this proposal.

We do support the idea of a large highly protected MPA or marine reserve in this globally important tropical marine environment to protect the well documented biodiversity, including the outstanding coral reefs. We note also from cetacean work in the area the presence of important cetacean habitat including but not limited to sperm whales; bottlenose, striped, pantropical spotted, and Risso's dolphins; as well as pilot whales, killer whales and various beaked whales including Cuvier’s beaked whales. In many respects this is a prime area in the Indian Ocean, the conservation of which will help the UK meet international 2010 and 2012 targets for conservation of biodiversity and creation of MPA networks.

However, we are concerned about the unilateral FCO procedure in trying to implement this MPA without even parliamentary debate or approval. Participation in this exercise ultimately needs to be with both the Chagossians, who were expelled from their homes in the islands some 40 years ago, and with Mauritius who have some claims to part of the territory. MPAs created from the ‘top down only’ are much less likely to function effectively.

We note that the Mauritian Government has sent a formal note verbale (6 January 2010) protesting against the FCO 'marine park' consultation; and the representative of the leading Chagossian Association (Olivier Bancoult) has gone on record as opposing the project.

These issues need to be sorted out in order to create a responsible, effective MPA. In the long-run, or even over a short period of time, the involvement of a local community and neighbouring governments with interests in the area will make the proposed MPA much stronger and more likely to succeed, especially when it comes to the difficult matter of enforcement and monitoring in the future.

Our second main concern regarding this proposal has to do with the fact that Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands, and the surrounding waters of the US Naval base, are being left out of the proposal. The proximity of military activities, including potential activities involving low- and mid-frequency active sonar, is problematic to the creation of a highly protected area. Navy mid-frequency sonar has been well documented to have a fatal impact particularly on beaked whale species and to have a range of other adverse effects on marine mammals.[1] To our knowledge, none of these activities within the prospective MPA have undergone legally required permitting, consultation, and environmental analysis under U.S. law.

We therefore respectfully request that the island of Diego Garcia and the surrounding waters be included in this MPA. In addition, there should be requirements for EIAs to address the issue of ocean noise pollution – including the use of active sonar – as well as vessel speed and traffic, dumping of wastes, and other activities that might affect the integrity of the Chagos Archipelago MPA. The U.S. Navy should also prepare an Environmental Impact Statement pursuant to the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act and seek authorization to take marine mammals incidental to base activities from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service in the U.S. Department of Commerce.

For your information, we note that an article in the Journal of Environmental Law in January 2009, raised concerns that the US military is responsible for environmental damage both on and around Diego Garcia, including – but not limited to – ‘large-scale coral mining, the introduction of alien plant species, continuous transit of nuclear material and unreported major fuel spills.’

Sincerely,

Erich Hoyt, Senior Research Fellow and Programme Lead, Critical Habitat/MPAs
Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society – WDCS
Brookfield House, 38 St Paul Street, Chippenham, Wiltshire SN15 1LJ UK

Sarah Dolman, WDCS Head of Policy for Scotland
WDCS Noise Pollution Campaign Manager
Honorary Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen

Kate O’Connell, Research Analyst, WDCS International

Michael Jasny, Senior Policy Analyst
Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
1314 Second Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401 USA

Taryn G. Kiekow, Staff Attorney, NRDC

[1] See, e.g., International Whaling Commission, 2004 Report of the Scientific Committee, Annex K, § 6.4 (concluding that the association between sonar and beaked whale deaths ‘is very concerning and appears overwhelming.’); TM Cox et al, ‘Understanding the Impacts of Acoustic Sound on Beaked Whales’, Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 7 (2006) 177; ECM Parsons et al, ‘Navy Sonar and Cetaceans: Just How Much Does the Gun Need To Smoke Before We Act?’, Marine Pollution Bulletin 56 (2008) 1248.